Law in the Internet Society

Autonomy Framed by Infinite Jest: "Children" & "Adults" in Pursuit of Happiness Pleasure


"But see that here it can't be a Fascist matter of screaming at the kid or giving him electric shocks each time he overindulges in candy. You can't induce a moral sensibility the same way you'd train a rat. The kid has to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short- and long-term pursuit of what he wants . . . He must be freely enlightened to self."

--Infinite Jest, p.429

David Foster Wallace's highly acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest, revolves around the unknown whereabouts of the master-copy of a film so seductive and pleasure-inducing that its viewers invariably lose all interest in everything but its perpetual viewing (a scenario perhaps not entirely far-fetched). As a kind of psychological weapon of mass destruction, the captivating power of the film exposes a precarious tension between maintaining respect for freedom of "choice" in the Oh-so-American pursuit of happiness, sacrosanct on the one hand, and advocating for appropriate government intervention on the other, i.e., when the choices of an orphan citizenry beg for parental guidance -- when by reason of undue influence or moral turpitude the citizenry is deemed incapable of choosing for itself. Salty snacks for example.

Of course, this calls for an explanation of what terms like "choice," "freedom," and "autonomy" mean, a task that can leave even the fittest and most dexterous of minds exhausted and stretch-torn. Perhaps only in the contexts of outright coercion and total elimination of options is the issue of autonomy vs. unfreedom relatively simple:

"We don't force. It's exactly about not forcing, our history's genus. You [as an American] are entitled to your values of maximum pleasure. So long as you don't fuck with mine." --p.424

But arguably nary a case exists in which choice is not accompanied by at least some level of coercion. In other words, much of human decision-making derives its structure from extraneous, often social, pressures that are specifically designed to coerce. And depending on the magnitude of coercive pressure at play, an individual's capacity for resistance and autonomous choice-analysis will be tested to varying degrees.

If individual autonomy, then, can be defined as an inverse function of coercion level, one can also imagine a full range of solutions, or mixtures, of autonomy relative to coercion, given more or less of each. The autonomy question, then, is one of miscibility: at what points does the coercion:autonomy ratio produce immiscible solutions -- points where the coercion level is no longer soluble within a free-flow of autonomy? And given such varying ratios, when is strategic advertising aimed at Pizza-Hut-lovers who are known to become entranced by the comfort of heart-stopping hydrogenated cheese grease akin to dangling the "fatal fruit"? Are we all adults here, or do some temptations reduce us to children in need of government rescue?

Too narrow. Your social psychology has been dichotomized: the influence of mind on mind is not reducible to a binary alternation between coercion and absence. Your political theory is also too reductive: Government rescue is also justified when the decisions adults make are purpose-rational (to use Max Weber's term) for them, but have collective effects that are harmful overall. Contemporary law school jargon talks of market failure and negative externalities as justification for regulation, but even if the jargon is repulsive the concepts are relevant.

"Now you will say how free are we if you dangle fatal fruit before us and we cannot help ourselves from temptation. And we say 'human' to you. We say that one cannot be human without freedom."


"Always with you this freedom! . . . as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do . . . . But what about the freedom to? Not just free from. Not all compulsions come from without . . . . How to choose any but a child's greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?" --p. 320

Consumer education and consumer protection, then, converge to define the debate over the pursuit of happiness.

Is this observation intended as cultural criticism or logic?

And given the implication that both miscibility variables -- autonomy and susceptibility to coercion -- are shaped by education, what then is the appropriate role of government, as adult, in shaping the decision-making process of the greedy child? To what extent should temptations and their advertisement be prohibited or at least mitigated by laws/regulations requiring brutally honest disclosure; to what extent should school curriculum function to indoctrinate/routinize cognitive decision-making algorithms of children from a ripe age; and to what extent can/should those algorithms be shaped to leave room for multiple and equally correct solutions to the same problem of choice (a kind of freedom via relativism)?

What is the point of asking "to what extent"? Is the desired answer a number, a range, a formula, a recognition that there's no such thing as a decision given the complexity of the world every child lives in? Is this an operational question, designed to enable policy-makers to decide something, or an illustration, designed to invoke a thought process?

"This is the crux of the educational system you [anti-American people] find so appalling. Not to teach what to desire. To teach how to be free. To teach how to make knowledgeable choices about pleasure and delay and the kid's overall down-the-road maximal interests." --p. 429


"Get real. The [irresistible] Entertainment isn't candy or beer . . . You can't compare this kind of insidious enslaving process to your little cases of sugar and soup." --p. 430

Freedom from; freedom to. Freedom from government-forced extinction of those joyfully enslaving MCDonald's jingles, 3am get-rich-quick commercials, and those creepily strategic facebook ads that kindly remind us of pleasures we might otherwise live life without, emptily. A freedom entirely opposed to the so called freedom to live one's adult life without excessive temptation -- a kind of autonomy via elimination of coercion. Does one kind of freedom more accurately represent the kind of "American" freedom typically trumpeted boldly and certainly with seemingly unbreakable religiosity, or is there room to experiment and find a miscible balance?

Why is this an "or" question? Isn't it apparent that lives are lived across an entire spectrum? I have no idea what McDonald? 's jingles you are talking about, because I've never heard them. I've a very good idea about how Facebook presents ads, but I've never used the service and I never will. Between that and all the readers who know exactly what you are talking about because they have first-hand evidence of the surrender of consciousness to these forms of sensation there are an infinite gradation of possible life textures, as there are within the very group of readers who have surrendered in various ways I have not.

If the heralded absoluteness of American freedom, at least for adults, exists as an entirely singular dimension of freedom-from, the tension can be cut with a plastic spoon. Get American or get real. Or get to them while they're young, one might say, because a prevailing attitude maintains that only children need protection: "adults" in America have a right to encounter infinite seduction unfettered and, if they so choose, to indulge the fruits of any and all insidious pleasures?

This seems to me a good start, but just as David Foster Wallace wrote substantially better than he thought, this essay could use more careful editing of its concepts. I've tried to note the places where I think the choices are made that need to be broadened, where the essay takes too easy a way out, fails to approach the breadth of the possibilities presented by the chosen starting-point, or allows the "frame" adopted to become a box. There's something fine here, but it needs to be quarried out from a too-confining reductionist substrate.



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r17 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:43:59 - IanSullivan
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